Closing Time

My last show at The 49’r The 49’r closed its doors forever Tuesday, Oct. 26. I drove by yesterday. The neon signs were gone. The windows were black. The place was dead. As an elegy, let me tell you about the last time I saw a band at The 49’r. “Hold on a minute,” said the guy who took my $5 at the door. “Let me stamp your hand. How am I supposed to remember who you are?” When was the last time someone stamped my hand at the door? It’s all about wristbands now, but it seemed fitting that The 49’r was still using a tried-and-true stamp. Nothing ever changed at The Niner. The place looked exactly like it looked when I went there for all those years, for shows like Street Urchins and Black Eyed Snakes and The Carsinogents and Carmine and The Sons of The 49’r and Son, Ambulance and Mal Madrigal and Two Gallants and Race for Titles and After Dark and Little Brazil and Zyklon Bees and The Philharmonic and Kite Pilot and Bombardment Society and The Stay Awake and Ladyfinger and The Monroes and Bangs and Owen and No Blood Orphan and The Movies and Mercy Rule and Statistics and every other band including Bad Luck Charm (BLC), who I was about to see again. It was crowded as it ever was. Nowhere to sit, nowhere to stand without being in someone’s way. What was the saying on the matchbook cover? “Right in the middle and nowhere to park.” I reached for my iPhone to take some pictures, realized I’d forgotten it, and damned myself for it. Of all nights to forget it, on this historic night. And then I thought, well, it’s serendipity. I never had a cell phone before when I went to the Niner. It’s only fitting I didn’t have one tonight. I’d rely on my memory for the pictures, just as I used to. The picture I saw Friday night, Oct. 22, 2010, was of a bar that, through its ups and downs, always held a special place in the Omaha music scene, even if its glory days were years ago.  Outside with the smokers I’d heard a similar story. One guy told me the passing of The Niner felt just like when the Cog Factory closed. He’d never gone to the Cog in its waning months and years, and so when its time came, he didn’t really care. He’d quit going to the Niner years earlier, too, and so its passing wouldn’t hurt that much. But then he began to talk about his favorite shows, and how much he liked playing there — more so than being a member of the crowd. I’d heard the same story from every musician that played at the Niner — they all said it was one of the best rooms they’d ever played because there wasn’t a stage so much as a space in the back where the bands stood, with the drums a step up behind every one. Nothing separated the bands from the crowd. Mike Tulis of The Third Men and a lot of other great bands years ago gave me the secret of seeing shows at The Niner. Don’t bother trying to find a place to stand along the bar or over by the fireplace with the Rudolf reindeer head. Walk right up front, right by the band, there’s always room up there, and if someone’s pissed that you’re standing in front of them, well it’s their own fault for sitting down when the band is playing. Do this at your own risk. Of all the venues in town, The Niner drew the roughest crowds, lots of aging punks in vintage T-shirts. And lots of drunks. More drunks than at O’Leaver’s (if you can believe that). The 49’r is/was a drinking man’s bar. What’s that that Nick says in It’s a Wonderful Life? “We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don’t need any characters around to give the joint ‘atmosphere.’” Nick could have been talking about The Niner. BLC sounded as good the last time I saw them, probably five years ago. There’s something about their music that makes people feel tougher than they are. BLC is fighting music, a derivative of ’80s punk mixed with power-chord rock from an earlier time. But it’s authentic, it’s real and that’s why it’s so appealing. Frontman Lee Meyerpeter took off his stocking cap after the first song and rubbed his bald head, saying “I don’t need hair products anymore.” Lee’s message throughout the set between songs: “Let it go.” But he was talking about more than the bar, which we all knew would soon see its demise. He was talking about every piece of baggage and vanity and resentment and fear of getting old. I left toward the end of the set, giving up my spot to the twisted crowd, as more and more people got off their feet and pushed toward the band, sort-of dancing, showing their appreciation with their bodies. As I went up those back stairs for the last time, the band played a cover of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” and the crowd went nuts. I could hear them as I walked back to my car along 49th Street, keeping my distance from a pair of stumbling bald drunks trying to find their way home.   And when I did get home I leaned over the sink with soap and water and scrubbed and scrubbed, but I couldn’t get that damn ink stamp off my hand. The 49’r and every band that played there also left a mark on me, but unlike that hand stamp, it’s a mark that will never fade with time.

posted at 08:50 pm
on Wednesday, November 03rd, 2010

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